NATCHITOCHES, La., June 4, 2012 — Mitt Romney’s stints as governor of Massachusetts and at Bain Capital get the attention of people who want to know how he works and what we might expect of him as president. His service as a Mormon missionary says less about him as a policymaker, but something about the man.
My intent is not to dissect Romney’s missionary service — without in-depth interviews that would be just a rehash of old stories — but to explain what that service entailed. The missionary experience has meaning to active members of the LDS church (the Romneys are very active members) that can be lost on the broader Christian community.
Boys in active LDS families are encouraged to “go on a mission” from the time they can talk. (Women serve as missionaries, but the expectation is less.) As three and four-year-olds, they sing songs in church like, “I hope they call me on a mission, when I have grown a foot or two.” When they get old enough to earn some money, they’re encouraged to start saving for their missions; aside from the plane ticket home, they’ll be expected to pay for the entire two years themselves. They are encouraged to remain worthy to serve a mission, and young women are encouraged to marry returned missionaries.
High-school-age LDS youth attend early morning religion classes (“seminary”) before going to school. In four years of seminary they memorize hundreds of scripture passages, a process that began when they were children, but now a focused activity on the way to seminary graduation. They’ll often learn other skills required of missionaries, everything from basics of cooking to ways to approach people outside the church about religion. They’ll have the chance to go with full-time missionaries in their area to visit and teach investigators of the church.
At 19, the prospective missionary fills out papers preparatory to the mission. He gets a physical exam, takes a language proficiency exam, is interviewed by ecclesiastical leaders, and finally sends completed paperwork to Salt Lake. Then comes an anxious wait.
The arrival of the mission call is an event looked forward to by the entire family, the young man’s friends, his bishop and seminary teacher and other adults in his church family. The call might be to Alaska or France or Madagascar, any of hundreds of missions around the world, to serve in English or some other tongue.
After receiving the call, there’s further preparation: buy luggage and clothing (white shirts, ties, durable shoes, and suits that will stand up to two years of constant wear and sometimes dodgy dry cleaning); maybe get a jump on language training. But most important, he’ll be ordained an “Elder” in the church (a position in the LDS priesthood), receive a temple recommend, and go to a temple for the first time as an adult.
A lot of snide chatter has been directed at Romney’s “magic underwear.” That refers to the temple garments, underwear that serves as a reminder of temple covenants. It isn’t considered “magical” or endowed with any particular power except this: Wearing it reminds you of who you are and the life you’ve taken on yourself. It’s magical in the way a wedding band, a priest’s collar, and a yarmulke are magical. They remind their wearers of promises and commitments made.
Just before he leaves as a full-time missionary, the young man is set apart and blessed by his stake president as a missionary. At that point a young Mitt Romney becomes “Elder Romney.”
In Romney’s day, missionaries who had to learn a foreign tongue spent two months in the Language Training Mission (LTM) in Provo, Utah. Now the LTM is called the Missionary Training Center (MTC), and all American missionaries report there. If their parents take them, they say goodbye there, and they won’t see each other again for two years (Romney served 30 months). They’ll speak to each other on the phone only a few times – Mother’s Day and Christmas.
At the MTC, the new missionary is assigned his first mission companion. They’ll study together, eat together, help each other, confide in and support each other, and be responsible for each other.
Life at the MTC is emotionally demanding. The MTC is sometimes called “the Lord’s boot camp.” A typical MTC day starts at 6:00. After they’re dressed, the missionaries will pray together, then study before breakfast. After breakfast, they’ll spend two hours in language class, take a short break, then attend a directed study hall or a cultural lesson. Lunch, an hour in the gym (mandatory), then more language, culture and study hall sessions, dinner, then more study take them to prayers at the end of the day.
And so it goes every day for two months, with time off on Monday to do laundry, get a haircut and go to the Provo temple, and time on Sunday to go to church.
After the third day, missionaries must speak only in their new language. Which means for several days they’ll have almost nothing to say at all outside of their classes. They’ll speak English only in the gym, where it’s required.
In the 1960s, missionaries were required to memorize set lessons, the “missionary discussions.” There were eight of them totaling about 100-150 pages of text, depending on the language. Work on those started in the third week of training, and by the end of the eight weeks most missionaries would have memorized at least three-fourths of the material.
Before they leave, missionaries take a language competence exam scored on the Foreign Service Institute scale, with a “5” corresponding to educated fluency. Missionaries studying the easier languages (Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French) might score a “2+” or “3” (conversational fluency on general topics for several minutes). Those studying harder languages (Finnish, Xhosa, or a Mayan dialect) might be lucky to ask for a sandwich at a restaurant and get anything resembling food.
Life in the mission field itself is the subject for another day. Let this suffice to stress that the LDS missionary experience requires a tremendous amount of commitment, it consumes much of the imagination of Mormon boys (to say nothing of their savings), and it is a central rite of passage into full adult participation in the church.
It doesn’t, however, predict what the young man will become. Many who serve missions go on to be leaders in the church, in business, in the military and in government. Others go on to be some of those things but to abandon the church, for a while or for good. (And because many members are converts, many LDS leaders have never served a mission.) Others grow into miserable human beings. But it remains an experience central to the transformation of an LDS boy into an LDS man.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He was a private in God’s army, eventually making it to corporal before being honorably discharged. Women at BYU only want to marry officers. Fortunately for him, his wife went to the Sorbonne, not BYU. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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